D.C. United's break for the Gold Cup came at a perfect time to assess the first part of their 2019 campaign. The home draw last weekend against the San Jose Earthquakes marked the exact halfway point for the Black-and-Red in their MLS schedule, with 17 games played and 17 games remaining once United get back in action later this month.
With the assistance of the fine folks at American Soccer Analysis, today we are going to take a statistical look at United's first half of the season. For the most part, United have had an up-and-down first half of the season, flying out of the gates until Joseph Mora broke his jaw on March 31 against Orlando City.
Since then, United has had a couple of poor performances, several stout games, while spending most of the time atop the Eastern Conference. But the Black-and-Red entered their June break on a five-game winless streak, and have already been surpassed in the standings by the Philadelphia Union.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the underlying numbers from United's season so far, and see how they stack up to the 2018 version of the team.
Wayne Rooney's Contributions
Obviously, the first place to start is with Rooney, who is still by far the most influential player for the Black-and-Red. After putting up 12 goals and eight assists in 20 games last year, Rooney has eight goals and five assists in 16 games in 2019. Rooney's minutes per goal has gone up, and a majority of his tallies have come from dead ball situations, including free kicks and penalties.
Using American Soccer Analysis' detailed numbers, though, there are some underlying numbers that stand out.
For example, Rooney's expected goals per 96 minutes (96 minutes representing the average length of a game, including stoppage time), has fallen from 0.62 in 2018 to 0.46 in 2019. That goes in hand with the general feeling that United have struggled at times this year to create opportunities in front of goal, but there are two other numbers that stand out as possible contributors to Rooney's xG/96.
One is that the average distance to the center of goal for Rooney's shots has increased from 21.4 yards in 2018 to 23.3 yards in 2019. An average of two yards per shot might not seem like a huge difference, but the further away from goal a shot is taken from, the less the chance that a goal is scored.
Additionally, 52 percent of Rooney's shots this year have come unassisted, or in other words, without a key pass. That's 26 of 50 shots this year that have come without input from his teammates. That number is up from 42.3 percent last year. A key pass from a teammate usually helps make it easier to break down an opponent's back line, and so a higher percentage of unassisted shots could be a symptom of United's frustration at times getting past opponents.
With all of this, it's still important to remember that Rooney's raw numbers are just about where United need him to be this year. A 15-goal, 10-assist season for the striker would have United in a good position by the end of the regular season. But as evident from 2018, there's more that United can get from Rooney if the supporting cast around him can contribute at a higher rate.
United Haven't Yet Replaced Yamil Asad's Production
D.C. really wanted Yamil Asad back for 2019, and it seemed like Yamil wanted to be back with D.C. this year. It didn't happen in the offseason, when the numbers that would have made his stateside move permanent didn't work for the Black-and-Red. And so United had to find a way to replace Asad's nine goals and eight assists from the 2018 season.
Maybe most notably about Asad's underlying numbers in 2018 was how many more goals he scored than his xG model predicted. Asad scored nine goals when he was expected to score 4.7. That difference of 4.3 put him eighth in MLS last year, just behind the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ignacio Piatti, and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Outperforming expected goals like that might indicate some luck in scoring goals, but also finishing off chances that have a low probability of ending up as goals.
Lucas Rodriguez had already been brought in on loan from Argentina and seemed to be the logical choice to step in for Asad, despite being a vastly different type of player than Yamil. Rodriguez has had some bright moments, but he has just two goals and two assists to his name this year. In 2018, over the course of the season, Asad had an expected total for goals and assists of 8.2 Halfway through the season, Rodriguez's tally sits at just 2.1.
Of course, there are other options that could have helped fill the Asad shaped void in the lineup, but those haven't panned out. Zoltan Stieber had an xG+xA per 96 minutes of 0.40 in 2018, but in limited playing time this year he is at a meager 0.16.
It should be noted that one factor in Rodriguez's lower numbers can be contributed to the change in formation that Ben Olsen had to use to make up for the loss of Mora. Asad was never asked to play as a wingback, solely playing as a wide midfielder. Rodriguez has played several games at left wingback, giving him a starting position further back on the field, limiting how many times Titi can get forward.
Getting back to the 4-2-3-1 is crucial for Olsen's side, and doing so might help unlock Rodriguez's potential to contribute in front of goal even more.